“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” If that isn’t a question that breaks your heart … or maybe, it speaks a truth, many truths, that so often we can’t find the words, or the strength, or the courage, to say.
On the lips of John the Baptist, no less. The one in the know. The one who was supposed know. The one who knew Jesus. But as I talked about in “Dear Working Preacher” last week, this is what place does to you. It changes you. It determines interpretation. It sets your viewpoint. It’s the location from which you might now have to make an alternate sense of the world.
This week, John the Baptist is in a new place. He’s gone from wilderness to pent-up-ness. From freedom to confinement. From wide-open spaces to the captivity of a cell.
A change of place causes a change of perspective. No longer in the wilderness, no longer baptizing in the Jordan River, no longer having people come to him, John is now in a different desert, no longer prophesying but questioning, with people likely positioning themselves as far away from him as possible.
When you are imprisoned, your questions change. When you are captive, your yearnings change. When your freedom to roam has been taken away, you then have an altered sense of freedom, perhaps — the freedom to ask questions you have not risked asking before, you have not dared to voice, or you have been told you should not utter.
Lest we think one place of perspective is better than the other, we need to keep in mind Jesus’ response. There is no condemnation of John’s question. Rather, Jesus acknowledges John’s inquiry as demonstrative of faith — “Go and tell him,” says Jesus. “Go and tell John to believe in who I know him to be. Go and tell John he is more than who he might have thought himself to be. Go and tell John he did what he was called to be.”
Or, to paraphrase using the words of Jesus in Matthew, “Go and tell John he was indeed the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Matt 5:13-14). In other words, disciples of Christ, be like John — which means even asking John’s question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Our tendency is to place our perspective on the place of another. To share our privileged-place viewpoints as if they are better than those who don’t share our advantage. To tell others what to think because they could not possibly see and know what we are able to see and know. After all, “just look at them.” And so, pride and pity take the place of humility and empathy. Hubris and certainty take the place of regard and wonder. We allocate judgment instead of embodying compassion.
John’s question is not one of doubt, but a question of trust. I suspect that behind John’s question is the promise of the Psalmist, “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God” (Psalm 146:5). The truth of this Psalm as known by John makes it possible for him even to ask his question. Because what we think this question asks all depends on determination of tone.
Does the question come from a place of speculation or a place of introspection? Does it come from a place of interrogation or from a place of true inquiry? Does it come from a place of disappointment or from a place of newly discovered determination that perhaps God might not always match up with or meet our expectations?
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” is the question at the heart of Advent. It gives voice to our latent hesitancy even in the midst of anticipation. It allows us to express uncertainty even though our viewpoint is on the other side of the incarnation. It provides us with the words to articulate what our hearts, our souls, actually feel when our mind tries us to convince us to stay quiet.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” is the question we ask from our own prisons that confine us to a limited imagination about God. It is the question we ask from our penitentiaries that can’t see beyond the concrete walls of divide and difference. It is the question we ask from our jails that justify our advantaged views of God over and against another’s.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” is the question of longing — longing for what we dearly hope but then wonder if it can truly be. Longing for promises to come true when it seems that the cards are stacked against us. Longing for what was, but at the same time looking forward to what could be.
Let John’s question be your question this week — and the question you get to ask with, alongside of, and for the sake of your people. Ask it together — not to answer it, not to solve it, not to tie it all up in a Christmas bow, but to lean in to the waiting, the wanting, and the wonder so as to hear God’s answer.